For many centuries, beer was brewed as a safer alternative to drinking water, and on many occasions was used part-payment for workers. Naturally, they didn’t want their workers to be completely sloshed (there’s no way their bosses would have been that cool) so the strength of beers remained firmly in single digits. However, brewers over the past couple of decades have gradually experimented with stronger and stronger brews, testing just how far they can push the alcoholic percentage in beer.
Most ‘normal’ yeast fermentations can only produce beers up to 12-14%, which whilst being a massive alcohol kick in beer, obviously isn’t enough for those seeking to push the limits. Champagne yeast can be used to increase the strength, but once you reach the 25% mark it becomes increasingly difficult to make a drinkable product using ‘traditional’ methods. Thus, the process of fractional freezing became popular. In a nutshell, fractional freezing involves partially freezing a beer, removing any ice that has accumulated in the mixture, with the process repeated until the desired strength is reached.
In the past five years, Scottish brewers BrewDog and German brewers Schorschbrau have been in direct competition to brew the world’s strongest beer. BrewDog ‘raised’ the Germans with a 32& Imperial Stout dubbed the ‘Tactical Nuclear Penguin’, and a 41% Quadruple IPA appropriately named ‘Sink The Bismarck’.
Faced with losing yet another epic battle with the UK, the Germans pork-knuckled down (which is a delicious dish), and produced the 43% Schorschbock. The Scots – surely urged on by Mel Gibson’s monumental speech from Braveheart – then came out with a 55% Blond Belgian Ale (brewed with nettles and juniper berries of all things) called the ‘The End of History’, of which only 22 bottles were made. In sticking with ‘extremes’ 7 of these bottles came packaged in a stuffed stoat, and 4 in a stuffed squirrel.
Not to be outdone the Germans went all-in with a Schorschbock 57, a 57.5% limited edition offering. Sensing the Germans actually weren’t messing around this time, the Scots reluctantly raised the white flag. One can only imagine the Germans celebrated by downing an ornate bierstiefel (for those playing along at home, those are the boot-shaped glasses. ‘Das Boot’ actually means ‘The Boat’ in German.) And that folks is where we currently stand.
I would love to be able to report on the Penguin, Bismarck, End of History, and the various Schorschbocks, but unfortunately prohibitive prices (the Penguin retails at $180, the Bismarck $200, the End of History $800, and the Schorschbocks I don’t believe are available in Australia!)
However, I have had the pleasure of trying the next best thing: Brewdog’s Tokyo* Stout.
Described as an ‘intergalactic fantastic oak aged stout’, this not-entirely-timid stubby of stouty-magnificence weighs in at an intimidating 18.2%. (And at $17 a bottle is certainly more accesible for the budget conscious).
Brewed with copious amounts of malt as well as jasmine and cranberries, the Tokyo* is dry-hoppped post-fermentation to soup up the flavour even more, before being aged on French toasted oak chips.
In the glass, the Tokyo* pours a viscous thick-black. A sniff provides a veritable feast of flavours for your nostrils. Vanilla, cherries, port, oak, sweetness, roasted malts, and of course a nice boozy reminder that you are in fact holding an extremely potent stout in your hands.
Taste-wise? Malty, dark dried fruit, sweetness, chocolate, port, hops, and of course a warming alcohol kick at the back-end.
To call it just a stout is to do this beer an injustice. It’s much bigger and more complicated than any stout I’ve had. The Tokyo* demands you sip it slowly and take in the flavours as they warm up, with various characteristics peeking through as you take that next mouthful. Beers – unlike wines – don’t have a history of being shared. You buy a pint, and YOU drink that pint. This beer however has to be shared. It’s simply too big to down 330ml on your own. Which is of course a fantastic thing. Why keep such a brilliant product to yourself?